January 7, 2013

‘Imagine A World Where You Only Have To Go To School Because You Truly Want To’

Category: Critical Perspectives
group rallying holding signs for occupy everything protest

Lately, I’ve been pleased with the ways digital tools are allowing me to engage and collaborate with the media producers that most challenge my thinking. I had intended to blog about how the comic book Wild Children terrifies and motivates me as an educational researcher. However, through a handful of Twitter exchanges, I, instead, was able to talk with the book’s author, Ales Kot.

Last summer, I picked up an unassuming, stand-alone comic book. This is nothing new. I’m still a regular reader of comic books today and the parallels between the serialization of monthly comic books and young adult literature today is striking.

In any case, the writer of this new book, Ales Kot, wasn’t yet a name I was familiar with. Typically, I read comic books expecting to be transported to imaginative and playful worlds. However, turning the pages in the comfort of my home, I was instead forced to confront my own assumptions about the current world and the ways we interact with youth. Wild Children details the precipice between imagination and reality, a space where children supersede adult authority and invert expectations about power, learning, and the purpose of schooling. It is a text entrenched in the anarchist Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone.

I recently had a chance to conduct an online Q&A with Kot about the background of Wild Children and his other upcoming projects including his newest release, Change. Our conversation focused on the role of education, technology, space, and engagement.

Antero: Thanks for your Time, Ales. I’m curious how you feel technology is changing the ways we read, consume, and interact with media like comics. For example, currently, I order comic books through an automated online system, Comixology. I lurk on a message board where comics are exchanged freely as digital files (unpaid for, I presume) and read on glossy screens.

Ales Kot: Reading and interaction: that’s very much up in the air. Some webcomics are amazingly successful and the reading experience can be very different, especially if we’re enabled to simply scroll down instead of clicking on the screen every time we want to flip a page. Connor Willumsen did some great things with that recently, and someone else as well…Blaise Larmee, I think?ales.kot.375

There are other ways, of course. Comics that use music and spoken word and such, comics that lead you towards the next panel by dimming the panels before it, then there are things that people call comics that really aren’t comics because what’s unique about comics is the control over time and space that they give to readers. When that element goes away, all we’re left with is something I’m not very interested in as an art form at the moment, and it’s certainly not comics.

I like the idea of including hyperlinks in text. If we ever release Wild Children as a free webcomic, which we might one day — that will have to happen.

Consumption: well, death of capitalism is here, sharing culture is alive and kicking. It’s up to us to figure what it means. Right now I’m just observing and gathering my thoughts. I am, generally speaking, all for eliminating the middle men. I like the .cbr [digital comic book] format a lot.

Antero: Some of my research focuses on how young people learn to participate civically in society. Wild Children offers rather different entryways for kids being heard. I’m wondering what your experience going through school was like and how it shaped the kind of voice you are articulating for youth in the book.

Ales Kot: Schools…I went through six in eleven years, and all of them stifled my imagination instead of supporting it, some more than others. I was a very good student until the age of ten, when I started asking questions most teachers were unwilling to answer. I want to know how the system itself worked, I wanted to know if they were happy, I wanted to know what use I would have for certain aspects of the curriculum. So yeah, I wasn’t exactly loved, and as I received more and more rejection, I spent less and less energy on school. I became more of an agent of chaos myself, so to speak. The kids in Wild Children have that quality as well, albeit taken to an even more extreme level.ales.kot.400

I quit school when I was seventeen and I never felt like I made a mistake. I learned more working and thinking and experiencing life on my own, without stifling rules and imposed ethics and master/slave tactics. I’m not saying every school has to be that way, but the majority of schools in Czech Republic were exactly like that, and probably still are.

Imagine a world where you only have to go to school because you truly want to.

Antero: Based on the timing of the book’s release, tragic violence, and also a time of educational flux in the U.S. [Wild Children, which is framed around a youth-driven violent takeover of a high school, came out just around the time of the shooting in Aurora, CO during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises”], I am wondering what the critical reception to Wild Children has been. Have you gotten any pushback to the sense of violence (real or make believe) within the book?

Ales Kot: The critical response has been almost completely positive, which had shocked me. It might have a lot to do with Wild Children not really exploding into the public consciousness in a massive way — more attention would likely bring more negative reactions. However, I’m quite happy with how the graphic novella is doing, both critically and commercially. Image is close to selling out of the first printing, and I’m getting mostly very positive responses not only from seasoned comics readers, but also from people who are new to comics and have started with Wild Children. That makes me enormously happy, because I have great fondness for the medium.

Antero: Wild Children builds off of anarchist theory. I’ve been interested in the possibilities of Temporary Autonomous Zones as building blocks for learning. I’m wondering what a TAZ meant for you as you were constructing this? Is it a space you’ve been able to establish?

Ales Kot: Temporary Autonomous Zone is, to me, any space where I feel at peace and secure. Right now, I’m sitting in my friend’s warehouse/recording studio in Las Vegas. I’m here alone, I just had waffles with peaches and ice cream, I’m drinking good merlot and I’m having a great conversation with you. Later on, I’m going to read about I Ching, maybe meditate for a bit. I feel safe and at peace, despite many inner and outer layers that are currently in flux. This is my current TAZ.

Another one of my temporary autonomous zones is the space I’m carving out for myself in comics. That TAZ, just like any else, allows people in and out as I see fit — it’s a zone where creativity, freedom, love and a simple ethical code rule the day, but that doesn’t mean I’m taking it from some fractured hippie perspective where the sun shines all the time. I like to integrate everything.

So what is TAZ to me? It’s a space where will (love under will, to be specific about it) connects with intent and imagination to create a fully functional sphere that can fulfill our hopes, dreams, ideals. You can make a clear connection between the (relatively slow in the US, because debt and more debt) economic collapse and the (equally slow, but also equally determined) rise of resilient communities. Because what is a resilient community if not Bey’s theory of TAZ applied in today’s world?

One of the good things the Occupy movement — however messy it got in places — provided was the exploration and proof of a TAZ as something that can be established in a fast and easy manner if needed, and kept around for a long time despite many (often brutal) obstructions.

As Bey himself says, TAZ can be used in positive and negative ways. In the end, it’s up to us. As for myself, I can see TAZ and resilient communities deeply embedded within the structures of my life, and I intend to integrate them as well as I can.

Antero: Perhaps related to the previous question, do you think your book helps establish a TAZ for readers? Your book reads like a teaching/instructional manual with a clear thesis trying to be expressed through breaking down walls between characters and readers. Without giving too much away, what would you say this book is “teaching”?

Ales Kot: Establishing a TAZ for readers? I hope so. It was part of what I wanted to achieve, and it seems that Wild Children is helping some people discover a possibility of exploring something new, perhaps even new parts of themselves. That’s what I want my work to do — show you ways to uncover parts of yourself that you weren’t aware of, help you face them and come back as a different you.

Wild Children is dedicated to everyone precisely because of that. The world I live in is complete and I need to perceive it as such. I don’t want to impose unnecessary barriers, I want to break them and push them off a cliff so they can fall apart in the ocean and change into something that won’t stifle progress.

It’s a fun game.

Antero: I’ve been thinking about the title of the book and the fact that the children seem most tame and collected throughout the story. The teachers and media most out of control. Can you talk briefly about where the title’s coming from?

Ales Kot: That’s all Hakim Bey, actually — specifically the section of his book Temporary Autonomous Zone called ‘Wild Children.’

Antero: In your description on Newsarama about your series, Change, you describe the threat within the story as “Death of imagination.” As this is an area educators tend to discuss, research, and wring hands over, I’m wondering how you contextualize it within the story and how this relates to your own outlook/experience in schools and as a writer.

Ales Kot: Imagination is where we begin to make — or at least re-make, that much I can tell for sure — ourselves and the universe. It’s where we plant the seeds that allow us to grow.

Imagination requires nurture. I was quite lucky in this aspect, because my parents taught me how to read early on. I was constantly immersed in books and comics. Both work with imagination in beautiful ways. The gutters in comics let you fill in the blank spaces, so every reading can be different. And books — oh, where to even begin.

Another thing that meant a lot to me, and still does, is my parents telling me “You can do anything you want as long as you don’t harm other people and you can be anything you want to be.” I’m quite sure they didn’t know what mess they got themselves into by sharing that meme. But it was exactly the right thing to do, you know? I don’t think I’m going to have kids, but if I did, I’d write that sentence on their door every morning like the creepy annoying father I’d probably sometimes be.

How all of this relates to Change: well, Change is strikingly Jungian, much more than I initially thought it would be. I began with a simple pulp story and then dissected it to see why I created it and what it said about me. And then I added parts that took the entire story much deeper. It’s a magical exercise — a science of sorts, where I test things and put them together until they create a reaction I like. That doesn’t mean I always know what kind of a reaction I’m even looking for. But the general rule I set for myself with my work is: ignite imaginations. Create stories you haven’t read before. Create stories that you yourself would want to buy and read. Because there are so many people who are afraid of their imaginations, and someone should show them they don’t have to be afraid.

Antero: Based on what I can infer about Change and from Wild Children, I think you’re looking at how social change is being sparked by the technological, cultural, and ideological shifts globally. Can you talk about how your work reflects this and what kinds of messages your hoping your readership will take away?

Ales Kot: I could dissect how it all works for me, and it would be fun — but I don’t like the idea of destroying the mystery for the readers. I’d prefer if the readers decided to figure out what means what for themselves. I feel that the work should speak for itself. Whenever I see a painting with a paper right next to it explaining what the artist “meant” or “may have meant,” I cringe. Just let me stare at the painting and figure it out for myself. There’s no immersion without the immediate.

Ales Kot is the author of Wild Children and the mini-series Change.

Banner image credit: Yung Grasshopper http://www.flickr.com/photos/yung-grasshopper/4407627029/

Other images courtesy of Ales Kot